By Todd Johnson
It was a rough night in the Cubs’ system as the minor league season began. Only the Iowa Cubs came away with a victory. Errors and defensive miscues plagued Tennessee, Myrtle Beach, and South Bend while all four failed to push across runs in key situations.
Loss to Oklahoma City 2-1; Win vs Oklahoma City 3-2
Jen-Ho Tseng pitched well, but one mistake resulted in a home run for the AAA Dodgers’ affiliate in the openener. In the nightcap, David Bote’s solo home run looked like it would hold up as the game winning RBI until Anthony Bass struggled to find the zone and gave up two runs. The Cubs gained a split of the opening day double-header thanks to the new extra inning rule. Pitcher Duane Underwood got some base running in and scored the game winner on a single by Efren Navarro.
Loss to Mississippi 3-0
Trevor Clifton looked very good through five innings and 67 pitches. In the 7th, the wheels fell off and he wound up being charged with three runs. Still, there was a lot to like about his start as he was very efficient for five innings. The Smokies struggled to put the bat on the ball with men in scoring position, a common theme from last night. The Smokies actually out hit the Braves 5-4 but were shutout. Jake Stinnett looked very good in relief despite giving up a hit that lead to two runs, both charged to Clifton. He struck out 2 in 1.2 IP.
Loss to Frederick 6-2
Initially, the Pelicans made three errors in the first inning leading to three runs by Frederick. Two of them were later changed to hits but the Keys scored three runs off Pelicans’ starter Keegan Thompson in the first and three runs later. The birds also had trouble hitting. PJ Higgins went 2 for 4 with 2 RBI in the 6-2 loss. Andruw Monasterio also did well going 2 for 3.
Loss to West Michigan 6-2
After taking a 1-0 lead in the first, South Bend struggled to keep up with the Whitecaps. Tyler Thomas (formerly Ricky Tyler Thomas) gave up 2 unearned runs and an earned run. Bailey Clark came on in relief later and struggled mightily in his first inning with 2 WPs and 3 runs, 1 of them earned. Outfielder Brandon Hughes was the only offensive highlight of the night. He went 2 for 2 with 2 walks, a stolen base, and he also scored a run.
It is rare for me to do a nightly recap. However, on most nights, I usually just focus in on one or two games or key performances. Everyday, though, I do pick the best performances of the day. Opening Day is no exception.
Hopefully, day two brings some better results in the Cubs’ system. Iowa is off due to inclement weather. Meanwhile, in the rest of the system, Duncan Robinson will be on the hill for the Smokies, Jose Paulino gets the nod for the Pelicans, and Javier Assad goes for South Bend.
Come back on Sunday for “The Weekly” as I recap the beginning weekend of MiLB baseball and select the Players of the Week along with the Baseball Card of the Week and the Team of the Week.
By Todd Johnson
Manager Marty Pevey has done a very good job the past five years of getting players ready for the daily grind of major league baseball. He will continue to do that again this year with several new prospects coming to Iowa. The difference this year is that very few of them will get an opportunity to make it to Chicago.
They are basically two scenarios in which an Iowa Cub could help the big league club this year. One is, of course, an injury to a position player or pitcher. And the second one is if somebody in the bullpen is just throwing lights out or a position player tearing the cover off the ball at Iowa.
First, the Cubs bullpen is not solidified. There are several arms who could possibly help at some point during the year. Dillon Maples leads that list. His stuff is phenomenal, he just has trouble controlling it. The 6’5″ lefty Kyle Ryan, who spent most of spring training with the big league club, is another specialist for manager Joe Maddon to call upon depending how Ryan does in Iowa.
While Mike Montgomery is currently slated as the sixth starter, and Eddie Butler, the seventh, the Cubs are going to need a spot starter or two throughout the course of the year. They always do. Iowa will have Jen-Ho Tseng along with Luke Farrell and Duane Underwood who could possibly fill that spot if need be. In addition, Alec Mills could be a name who might be given a chance this year. He missed most of last year and resurfaced in August. I’m interested to see how he does once he gets stretched out.
A 162 game schedule can wear down players and so it is likely that a position player is going to be needed at either catcher or as an infielder or outfielder. Infielders Ryan Court, Stephen Bruno, Chesny Young, Mike Freeman, and David Bote all saw substantial time in spring training with Chicago and could help out at a moment’s notice. Chris Gimenez, Ali Solis, and Taylor Davis can do the same behind the plate.
In the outfield, plus hitters Mark Zagunis and Bijan Rademacher could make an outstanding fifth outfielder in Chicago, if need be. While Rademacher can place all three outfield positions, Zagunis is best suited to left. The speedy Jacob Hannemann should be patrolling centerfield most days and it will be interesting to see how his bat improves from last year.
Most Likely to Make It to Chicago First
Bote’s ability to play 5-6 positions moves him to the front of the line. However, Mark Zagunis is the most experienced prospect and has earned the right to get another crack first. Even though Zagunis is an outfielder, the rest of the big league Cubs are versatile enough to play all over. If it is a catcher injury, Gimenez gets the call.
The First Prospect Promoted to Iowa
It should be reliever Dakota Mekkes who will start the season at Tennessee. The 6’7” reliever dominated two levels of full season A ball last year. He went almost 2 and 1/2 months without giving up an earned run. His ERA for the year was just under 1.
Overall, the Iowa Cubs have a lot of depth. They just don’t have that player that everyone concedes to be an elite prospect. They have several guys who can help the big league club if needed. And to be honest, that’s fine for right now. It would be nice if they had another top prospect, but the ones they have will help when called upon.
By Todd Johnson
Getting Some Action In
While the major league players have just 10 days left in camp, the Cubs minor-league prospects are just now getting in the swing of it after 10 days as there season does not begin until April 5. Games started being played this week out in Mesa and the surrounding areas like Scottsdale in Yuma. Two key highlights of the week were four perfect innings from Jen-Ho Tseng and three scoreless from Jose Paulino. In addition, both Zack Short and Wladimir Galindo each cranked out home runs. And according to Arizona Phil, the source for all the Cubs minor-league news this spring, outfielder Eddy Martinez is off to a really strong start.
In the major league camp, the Cubs cut the roster down to 37. One of those cuts was World Series champion Justin Grimm. The writing has been on the wall for a little bit since he actually wound up going to arbitration against the Cubs. As a result, Grimm’s contract was not guaranteed this year. I don’t think the Cubs are going to try and re-sign him to a lesser deal. On Thursday this week, I wrote about who could possibly be the last reliever standing. Grimm’s cut narrows it down to Eddie Butler and what looks to be dark horses in Anthony Bass and Justin Hancock. Not quite sure how that is going to play out over the next 10 days but there are only 3 non roster invitees left in Bass, Kyle Ryan, and the hard throwing Hancock, who pitched at Tennessee and Iowa last year.
With just 37 players left on the major league roster, minor league rosters are starting to take shape. They are far from final, though. For example, Iowa currently has 37 players on its roster along with four players on rehab. Let’s say that 7 out of the 10 nine roster invitees get signed to minor-league deals for 2018, that puts the roster at 44. Close to 15 of those players are going to have to either be moved down to Tennessee or cut. That will start a chain reaction to adjust the rosters for opening day of the minor league season. However, that’s not going to happen for another two weeks. I imagine rosters will be released on April 1 or 2 for most of the minor-league clubs.
A New Toy
My wife and I broke down and used some of our income tax refund to buy a new camera. We got a Canon EOS T6 with 3 additional lenses to zoom in. She wants to use it for the birds in the backyard and I want it for baseball…imagine that! I cannot wait to take some pics with it next month.
On a Personal Note…
My busy season at school officially ended on Thursday night when my academic team won the conference tournament!!! It was a pretty sweet victory and I have a mostly young team that loses just two seniors, but my leading scorer this year was a sophomore. I also had three underclassmen in the starting lineup every night. It was fun to watch them grow by leaps and bounds.
As a result, I have all kinds of free time now. I began flushing out the affiliate previews a little bit more this week and I also had time to write two articles. One was for Cubs Insider on the recent minor-league pace of play changes and the other was for BP Wrigleyville on which minor league affiliate to watch this spring.
My Annual Fantasy Team
I used to play in a lot of fantasy baseball leagues. Now, I have it narrowed down to one. It’s the same ten team league I have been playing in for years and we held our live draft yesterday. I think my team looks decent, although I am one starting pitcher short. Here is who I have:
C – Salvador Perez, Welington Castillo
IF – Votto, Altuve, DeJong, Moustakas, Starlin Castro, Chapman
OF – Judge, Reddick, Hoskins, Austin Hays, Marwin Gonzalez,
U – Logan Morrison
Bench – Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres, Ronald Acuna, and Nick Senzel
SP – Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, McCullers, Arrieta, Taijuan Walker
RP – Wade Davis, Edwin Diaz, Sean Doolittle, and Brandon Kintzler (I will be replacing him with a starting pitcher in the next week)
Bullpen – Walker Buehler, Zach Britton
I like my team better for the summer than I do for April as I took some risks in adding a lot of future rookies on the bench and drafting Britton, who is currently injured.
Coming Up Next Week
The final article in the “Leveling Up” series comes out on Wednesday. Outfielder Brandon Hughes, who should be at South Bend in 2018, has his possible future profiled about what kind of player he’s going to be.
After that, I don’t have anything planned for two more weeks until MiLB opening week+. Nothing is pre-written as most of the off-season is. So, I’m just gonna go with the flow of what is happening for about 10 days. It should be a lot of fun for a change. And I will probably make some cards … just like this jem.
Made from a photo by Jen Nevius
By Todd Johnson
Last week, in part one, I talked about the depth of right-handed starting pitching in the system. That depth also could make my job harder to pick just six arms each month for all-star teams. If I was to rank all 34 right-handed starters, there would not be much of a difference between number 30 and 13. However, in this article, the top six arms in the system set themselves apart from the pack with their talent.
6. Jen-Ho Tseng – For the second time in four years, he was named the Cubs MiLB Pitcher of the year. There probably won’t be a third. He’s pretty much ready. With a plus curve and a plus change, he can baffle hitters as long as he can command his fastball. It will be interesting to see what role he gets in spring training. If he doesn’t make the 25 man in the pen, he will begin 2018 at Iowa as a starter.
5. Oscar De la Cruz – He did not pitch 50 innings last year. That’s a concern. In fact, he hasn’t pitched a 100 innings combined over the last two years. That is a huge concern. As a result, it is easy to question whether he is built to be a starter. He definitely has starter stuff, but he keeps breaking down. Last year, it was a shoulder strain, the year before, a forearm strain. He was all set to pitch in the Arizona Fall League in 2017 and the Cubs yanked him from there. For 2018, there are a lot of questions that only his performance and health can answer. Spring training will give us the first look.
4. Thomas Hatch – Year two should go much better. Maybe he was thrown to wolves a bit last year, but he did dominate as much as he struggled. At AA, his four pitch mix should play well if he can find the zone. After a 0.98 ERA in five June starts, I thought he was headed to Tennessee. That didn’t happen. On the other hand, he stayed healthy for the entire year, pitched 124 innings, and struck out 126. An interesting tidbit is that he only pitched beyond five innings just five times. AA will be a huge test to improve that efficiency.
3. Alex Lange – I love to watch him pitch. He has an amazing curve and when his fastball command is on, he is almost unhittable. The problem is he needs a third pitch if he dreams of being a starter in Chicago. He got in 9 innings of work last summer to acclimate himself a bit to the minors. As for where he will begin 2017, part of me hopes it is South Bend to get a taste of a Great Lakes spring. The other part of me hopes for Myrtle Beach to challenge him. Right now, I am leaning toward the former. This is one thing I would like to find out this weekend at the Convention.
2. Adbert Alzolay – He needs to refine his secondaries some more this year. He should begin 2018 at AAA Iowa and if he ever gets a changeup figured out, he could be in Chicago quickly. He should make several starts with the big league club in Chicago during spring training. That should be fun.
1. Jose Albertos – I love everything about this kid. Ever since Eloy left, I labeled him as the Cubs top prospect. His 18-year-old-floor contains a 91-96 mph fastball, a wicked plus changeup, and a curve that still has some grip issues. If he gets the curve figured out, the sky’s the limit for his ceiling. He just needs to keep building innings and arm strength. In 2016, he only got 4 in. Last year, he put in 60+ if you include extended spring training. This year, 100 should be the goal and 120-130 in 2019 making him ready for 160 big league innings in 2020.
More names to watch
Jesus Camargo – I love his changeup. He had a good 2017 coming off of TJS and was one of my favorites to watch last year. Plus changeup.
Alec Mills – I need to see more. Several lists have him as a top 10 prospect, but I haven’t seen it yet.
Jeremiah Estrada – He’s young, moldable, and was a stud in 2016 on the summer circuit. His 2017 high school season was a downer but the Cubs took the talented flamethrower in the 6th round and dissuaded him from going to UCLA. There’s no rush with him.
Bailey Clark – 2018 should be a good year for him as it sounds like he is working hard this offseason and building up strength to get back into the mid 90s. In August, he destroyed the Northwest League with a 1.69 ERA.
Erick Leal – After missing all of 2017, he should be back at Tennessee and the long, lanky righty will get his first crack at AA.
Erling Moreno – If he could only stay healthy. He missed the better part of two months in 2017 after missing most of 2014-15. When he and his plus curve are on, he’s very good. When he’s not, it is not pretty.
Keegan Thompson – Last year was a comeback year for the 2017 draft pick from Auburn and now he should be set free from day one with no restrictions. The former flamethrower said surgery turned him into more of a pitcher. I look forward to seeing him in South Bend.
Erich Uelmen – He didn’t get a lot of work in after being drafted last year, but he should be in a rotation somewhere in 2018. He can throw in the low to mid 90s in somewhat of a sidearm style.
Jesus Tejada – He was the hottest Cub pitcher in August but that was down in the Dominican. He should be stateside this year. I think he will probably start out in Eugene.
Brendan King – He was the ace of the Mesa staff after being drafted last summer. The kid from Holy Cross should get a crack at South Bend to start 2018. He struck out 28 in 22 innings and made 4 starts for the Rookie League champs.
Next week’s breakdown post returns on Friday as I examine left-handed starters.
By Todd Johnson
Carl Edwards, Jr.
Those names don’t exactly exude confidence to get the final three to nine outs of a game. After yesterday’s announcement that the Cubs did not tender a contract to reliever Hector Rondon, new pitching coach Jim Hickey’s job just tougher, a lot tougher. At over $6 million, Rondon’s contract was getting too pricey to just be a setup man. The Cubs essentially said, “Thank you for service, but no thanks for 2018.” As a result, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer now have their work cut out for themselves this offseason.
Originally, just Wade Davis and Brian Duensing had left via free agency. The Cubs now have to replace half their pen and add depth to stash at AAA Iowa, which appears to be well underway.
Since the end of last season, the Cubs have taken some flyers on some arms with minimal MLB experience. Righty Luke Farrell could relieve, he could start. He has 13 career MLB innings. Righty Cory Mazzoni has 16 career innings to go with his shiny 17.28 career ERA. Lefty Randy Rosario’s career ERA is a whopping 30.86 in just 2.1 innings. And this week, the Cubs signed 29-year-old lefty Dario Alvarez. He might be alright. He threw 16 IP in 2017 with a 2.67 ERA but also put up an unsustainable whip of 2.02. He walked 14 batters. I thought his signing was a little odd as Theo talked about adding strike throwers in his offseason press sessions. I don’t think that is what he had in mind.
After seeing those stats, I am not brimming with confidence. I am not in sheer terror either, but I am concerned. The Cubs will need to find a closer and a couple of setup men while adding depth at AAA.
Theo is going to have hit the free agent market and maybe use the Rule 5 Draft (Kohl Stewart of Minnesota is one name I like) as a cheaper option. Theo has been able to find arms in the past rather cheaply and I am sure he will again. In addition, I would not be surprised to see Theo make a trade for an arm or two rather than overpay in the free agent market or in an international free agent.
Here are some free agent names to look for to see if the Cubs are associated with or show interest in over the next month:
Brian Shaw, Brandon Morrow, Pat Neshek, Brandon Kintzler, Addison Reed, Juan Nicasio, Luke Gregerson, Fernando Rodney, Matt Albers, Tony Watson, and Jake McGee.
As for internal options…
Dillon Maples is close to being ready. While he has top flight MLB pitches, it is just a matter of controlling them. At 25, he now stands a better chance of making the 25 man roster. I always thought that Jen-Ho Tseng’s change-curve combo would play better out of the pen than as a starter. He could get that chance in 2018. While Rob Zastryzny is an option, but I don’t know if I see him as a long term option. Justin Hancock is another strong arm. He had an up and down year year for three MiLB teams in 2017, but he does throw in the upper 90s. David Garner finally made it to AAA in August but struggled in his one month there. He is going to need some seasoning at that level. One name I like is Tommy Nance. He spent all of 2017 injured. He reminds me of Brandon Webb in that he throws a “hard” ball that breaks a lot of bats. Nance would be a very longshot to make the team, but I could see him getting a shot later in the summer if all goes well with his health.
In the end, adding three to four more arms to a corps that struggled to find the plate in 2018 is a bit concerning. All last night I kept wondering if Theo would overpay for pen security or would he try to find undervalued arms somewhere. However, heading into day 2 of the Shohei Otani watch, rebuilding the pen could take a while as the Cubs do have more pressing needs at starting pitching. Once the Otani dust settles, it should be interesting to see how the bullpen shakes down.
By Todd Johnson
Last year, I quipped that Fangraphs produced the prospect list your mother warned you about. This year, Eric Longenhagen continued the tradition of creating a list different from the mainstream. The list, which came out today, contains analysis of upwards of 50 Cub prospects in detail. Although he only ranks 22, there is still plenty of information to go through and dissect. Overall, the list is a selection of young, athletic, and unproven prospects in the top 10.
Like Baseball America, Fangraphs placed shortstop Aramis Ademan at number one followed by pitchers Adbert Alzolay and Jose Albertos. While I would probably have them in inverse order as a top three, I really can’t quibble with Longenhagen’s reasoning. For the next 18 picks, though, it is all about potential. Longenhagen states:
Trades and graduations have sliced off the head of this system, but I remain fond of its “fruit on the bottom” composition. It features a wide swath of young talent at the lower levels, mostly from Latin America. The Cubs have cast a wide net in Latin America, adding a slew of good-bodied athletes with middling tools and then just kicking back to see what the player-development staff can do with them.
Pitcher Oscar de la Cruz is still held in esteem at number four and is soon followed by Brendon Little and Alex Lange, both of whom seem to have incomplete projections about whether they will be starters or relievers if, and when, they get to Chicago
The biggest shockers in the list came in the middle with the inclusion of several young 18 to 19-year-olds. Catcher Miguel Amaya is a favorite of mine and he is situated at number nine. Pitcher Alec Mills was next at ten, even though he missed most of 2017 with bone spurs. Mills was praised for his baseball command and plus changeup.
At number 11, 2017 sixth round pick pitcher Jeremiah Estrada got a lot of love from Longenhagen for his potential despite only pitching six innings of professional ball in 2017. One of my favorite young Cub prospects, outfielder Nelson Velazquez, came in at number 13 while unheralded lefty starter Brailyn Marquez surfaced at number 14 after an up-and-down year in Mesa.
The more I got through the list, the more and more the emphasis is on potential. Former top prospect Mark Zagunis wound up at number 20 while several more established Cub prospects did not make the top 22 cut like Trevor Clifton, Chesny Young, and Duane Underwood. Even the Cubs’ reigning MiLB Pitcher of the Year Jen-Ho Tseng did not make it. It is not as if Fangraphs have tossed the old guard to the side of the road, they made way for more prospects with a higher upside. DJ Wilson, for example, is one young and athletic prospect I profiled just last week who made the top 10.
In the end, this list is just going to be one of many this offseason that could have a totally different view of the Cubs system from every other list. In the next two weeks, Baseball Prospectus is set to release their Top 10 Cubs list either late next week or the week of the 11th.
The more lists that come out, the greater the variance is going to be. It’s pretty evident that the era of consensus on who the Cubs top prospects are is over. Even though Ademan has gotten the top nod in both major lists so far, don’t expect him to get top billing in every one.
By Todd Johnson
The Cubs need to take their pitching staff into the shop to get it ready for the 2018 season. It’s going to need more than a tuneup, an oil change, and a new set of white walls. In 2017, it proved to be an aging staff. Even with the addition of Jose Quintana, there are still a lot of question marks when it comes to the Cubs starting rotation for 2018 and beyond.
There should be two new faces in 2018 for the starting rotation. When you consider that you have to replace almost 400 innings, in addition to developing some back ups in AAA, that’s a lot to go and find in one offseason. I think the Cubs need to go find the best long-term assets they possibly can. Considering who the Cubs are replacing, the Cubs need number one and number two type starters.
There are three ways that the Cubs are going to get starting pitching for 2018 and beyond. They can promote from within, find a free agent or two, or make a trade. They should get one free agent and make one trade. Theo will probably not go all in on one way to acquire talent.
The number of pitchers the Cubs could cull from within for 2018 is slim. Mike Montgomery will head back to the pen, although he could make a spot start or two next year. Jen-Ho Tseng is just about ready – he only has 55 IP at AAA. Eddie Butler and Alec Mills also provide some depth in case of injury. However, Mills and Butler are currently not exactly what the Cubs are looking for in a starter. The Cubs need #1 or #2 type arms.
Duane Underwood, Trevor Clifton, Adbert Alzolay, and Zach Hedges should all be at AAA at some point in the next year. In order for any Cub farmhand to make it to Chicago, they would have to be dominant at that level. So far, only Tseng has. Spring training performance will go a long ways towards inspiring any confidence in their arms.
The second half of the year looks more promising for starting pitching help as the prospects gain experience at AAA. The Cubs also have several arms at AA who could help later this season, too. Thomas Hatch is one prospect who I hope figures it out this year and I would not look past Alex Lange, the Cubs second first round pick from 2017. Lange could move fast this year with his experience and his killer curve. A starting pitcher moving quickly is something the Cubs have not seen in the Theo era.
The Free Agent Market
When looking at the free-agent market for this winter, there’s Shohei Otani and then there’s the rest. The Cubs can only offer Otani a minor league contract for $300,00. If Otani waited for another year and a half until he turns 25, the Cubs could sign him for $200-$300 million. With the talent this kid has, the team that signs him would basically be getting a once in a generation type player. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a miracle but I’m not holding my breath.
That leaves the field.
Alex Cobb might be a nice back of the rotation type starter, but he’s not the number one or number two type the Cubs envision themselves getting, let alone one who will be 31 when when 2018 begins.
Here is a list of some of this offseason’s top free agents that I like and their age:
Jake Arrieta (32)
Andrew Cashner (31)
Tyler Chatwood (28)
Johnny Cueto (32) — Can opt out of the remaining four years, $84MM on his contract
Yu Darvish (31)
Nathan Eovaldi (28) — $2MM club option
Matt Moore (29) — $9MM club option with a $1MM buyout
Masahiro Tanaka (29) — Can opt out of the remaining three years, $67MM on his contract
While this list doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, there are some attractive arms but there is no sure thing at a cheap price. I would love to see Cueto or Darvish in a Cubs’ uniform. I like the idea of Chatwood but more as a reclamation project just as much as I like Cashner in the pen. I just wonder if the cost is going to be prohibitive. As a result, I think the Cubs might go with someone like someone like Alex Cobb, or Jeremy Hellickson who is not on this list. That would be for just one pitcher.
The problem with the Cubs making a trade for a #1 type of starting pitcher is they more than likely don’t have the high end minor league prospects that other teams value. Yes, the Cubs do have some good young players, but I don’t think any amalgamation of prospects is going to bring back a number one starter. It’s going to take a major league player to get a major-league pitcher. That means Happ, Almora, Russell, or Schwarber are likely to be involved.
Phil Rogers of MLB.com listed some possible arms the Cubs could acquire this winter that fit the bill of what they are looking for in a pitcher.
But now it sure sounds like Epstein and Co. are prioritizing the starting pitchers who could be available in a trade — Chris Archer, Michael Fulmer, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Nola and Sean Manaea, to name five — ahead of the position players who don’t provide unique skills on the roster. Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are untouchable, but maybe nobody else.
I think whatever the Cubs are going to do this offseason to acquire top flight starting pitching is going to come together quickly. It is hard to put a price on proven major league starting pitching of that caliber. It is going to cost a lot of money or a lot of prospects, or even a current MLB player.
In the end…
When the year 2021 comes around. most of the Cubs position players will be in the last year of their rookie contracts. The Cubs do not have any starting pitching signed beyond that year. Whoever Theo gets this winter could be the anchors for 2021 and beyond.